The future of PE in China — Big PE vs. Small PE

I never much liked the term “Private Equity” since it serves two very different meanings and even more different business models. That difference has never been more stark than it is today. There is what I like to call “Big PE” and “Small PE”. One is hurting, and the other is still thriving. Luckily for China First Capital, we focus working with the part of the PE industry that’s still in good shape.  

In Big PE, large-scale, multi-billion-dollar deals are done by famous firms of the likes of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, Blackstone and Carlyle. In Small PE , another group of PE firms thrive by finding great companies, at an earlier stage in their development, and backing them with growth capital. 

Big PE targets larger, often publicly-traded companies, or divisions of these larger firms. Using a slug of equity to support a large pile of bank debt, these private equity deals are based on acquiring a controlling interest in a company, and can deliver outstanding results by tossing out tired and underperforming management teams, tightening up on operating efficiencies, investing for growth. In 1-3 years, if things go well, the Big PE firm exits the now-improved business through either a trade sale or primary stock market listing. 

What matters most here essentially is finding a poorly-run business, with a bad capital structure and often worse management. (To take one recent example among many, think of Cerberus’s purchase of Chrysler’s from Daimler.) Ideally, a Big PE firm can turn things around quickly after buying control, and get an exit where the debt is paid off, and the underlying equity gets a very high rates of return. 

There are two big problems now in Big PE: the drying up of credit, and the shrinking valuations put on the businesses spiffed up for sale by the PE firms.  The recession compounds the problems, since the deals are built on leverage, and the bank debt will often have aggressive covenants attached to it. Those covenants (generally targeting  operating metrics like increasing EBITDA) are much harder to achieve in a down economy. Covenants get breached, deals need to be restructured with the Big PE firm pouring in more of its own capital, and the time and value of an exit go in the wrong directions: it takes longer to make less. 

Not a good business to be in at the moment. 

Then there’s Small PE, which has never looked sounder. The core skill-set here never goes out of fashion. It’s the ability to find a great company with the potential to grow far larger. Small PE firms invest their own money, for a minority stake in a business. They then provide what help they can to management, and if they’ve chosen their portfolio investments well, will wait confidently for the optimal moment to achieve a very solid return on each individual investment.  

In other words, Small PE is not built on complex financial engineering, but on good, old-fashioned “stock-picking”. 

Last month, David Rubenstein, the co-founder and managing director of Carlyle Group, one of the biggest of the Big PE,  gave a presentation in Tokyo titled “What Happened? What Will Happen? A Look At The Changing Investment And Private Equity Worlds” . Rubenstein, who has made over a billion dollars personally in the PE industry, tried to summarize all the tectonic forces destabilizing Big PE. There’s a lot of alarming stuff in his presentation. The key line: “The Credit Crisis Has Dislocated the Private Equity Industry “. (If anyone would like a copy of the Rubenstein presentation, email me at peter@chinafirstcapital.com)                                                                                                                                          

Rubenstein’s prediction, which I share: Deals: Smaller, Less Frequent, More Overseas”. In particular, Rubenstein foresees more PE firms raising money to invest in Asia. The fact he cites: Asia private equity fundraising has increased but remains small at 9.2% of the $331 billion raised by U.S. PE funds in 2007 considering that the combined GDP of the above countries is 93% of the GDP of the U.S. 

No question, Big PE will now try to act more like Small PE. The problem they’ll face is that they’re not well structured to find, assess and invest in smaller-sized deals. My guess is that the good PE firms already operating in Asia – the ones we work with regularly at China First Capital – will  be able move quicker and smarter than their new Big PE rivals. Here I means firms like China Renaissance Capital, (www.crcicapital.com) which has a great record of finding strong middle-market companies in China, investing wisely and at fair valuations, and then working alongside management to create the operating conditions for an ideal exit. 

Rubenstein’s talk included a table showing the 2008 year-to-date performance of a number of the most well-known Big PE.  All the following have lost money this year. What you see here is a cumulative loss of many tens of billions of dollars:

􀂃 Tosca Fund – 62%

􀂃 Templeton Emerging – 50%

􀂃 Kensington/Citadel  –37%

􀂃 Satellite Overseas  -30%

􀂃 Marathon Global Equity – 20%

􀂃 Canyon Value Realiz. –20%

􀂃 Goldman Sachs Investment Partners –16%

􀂃 Deephaven Global –15%

􀂃 Millenium Global HY –14%

􀂃 Cantillon Europe –13%

􀂃 Zweig-Dimenna Intl. –8%

􀂃 Harbinger Offshore -5%

􀂃 Cerberus Intl. –3%

􀂃 Viking Global Equities –2%

The good Small PE firms are having far better years. My own prediction is that this performance gap will only widen over the next two years, as the deal pipelines for Asian PE firms we work with remain very strong. Big PE has to re-learn their approach, and try to master a new set of skills. All the while, they’ll be losing out on many of the best opportunities in Asia to their smaller, more nimble and more experienced rivals. 

It’s hard to find a dancing elephant. The reason: it’s hard to teach the elephant the steps. 

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